Surprising Sweetness

The Book of Mormon. Book, music, and lyrics by Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone. Eugene O’Neill Theater, New York, Spring 2011.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s first feature-length film, Cannibal! The Musical, was a musical. Their third, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, was a musical; it even won an Academy Award nomination for its song “Blame Canada.” For that year’s honors Parker and Stone memorably dressed in drag—specifically in Jennifer Lopez’s green plummeting-neckline number and a satiny pink dress à la Gwyneth Paltrow from the year of her Shakespeare in Love acceptance speech—but they lost to Phil Collins. Their puppet movie, Team America: World Police, featuring the catchy martial pep song “America, Fuck Yeah,” was a musical. And beginning with “Kyle’s Mom Is a Big Fat Bitch,” in episode nine of season one, even South Park, Parker and Stone’s animated serial masterpiece on Comedy Central, has been a musical, for fifteen years running, just about every chance it can get. Notably, a number of these productions had something to do with Mormons. Cannibal was in part about Mormons (and cannibalism). Orgazmo (their second feature) was all about Mormons (and porn). Episode twelve of season seven of South Park bears the title “All About the Mormons.” You needn’t have watched everything Parker and Stone have ever made (as some people have, I hear) to know that the boys (as we still tend to call them) love musicals, and are preoccupied with the Latter-day Saints.

Even so, the early media story about The Book of Mormon, which won nine Tonys including Best Musical early this summer, was about how surprising it was that those naughty boys, those silly brilliant foul-mouthed Colorado boys, wanted to make a musical, and that it was about Mormons. Even more surprising, we found out during previews, was that this show had a “heart that is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show.” That was Ben Brantley’s rave in the New York Times, in which he reported “that a newborn, old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical has arrived at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, the kind our grandparents told us left them walking on air if not on water. So hie thee hence, nonbelievers (and believers too), to ‘The Book of Mormon,’ and feast upon its sweetness.”

It was so surprising, this sweetness, that the very same story was told by reviewers from Reuters (“the defining quality . . . is its sweetness”), USA Today (“the most surprising thing . . . may be its inherent sweetness”), and more than a dozen other news outlets. The Mormon audience members quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune were using the same words (Graceann Bennett remarked on the show’s “sweetness”; Anne Christensen called it “incredibly sweet”). The groupthink that manufactures such a story, the repetitiveness of its language, and the thinly veiled commercial motivations behind it (to save Broadway, we can only assume, from Spider-Man): these are exactly the sorts of dynamics the South Park boys skewer so brilliantly every week on their show. As I walked toward the Eugene O’Neill Theater to take in this sensation, I tried to think critically about the way Parker and Stone seemed to be feeding this machine of ritual language in their interviews. And yet to be honest with you, I secretly did not give a shit.

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